Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The God who Changes his Mind?

Salisbury Cathedral last night!
I’ve been spending a few days with The Baptist Union Retreat Group Committee at Sarum College and one of the ‘perks’ has been the wonderful opportunity of going to Choral Evensong across the road in the cathedral.

On Monday night as we sat in the Quire we heard the Old Testament reading from Jonah 3 of God changing his mind over the fate of Nineveh.  He had intended to punish the city but after the citizens there mended their ways we are told – and it came as a bit of a jolt to hear this in the cathedral – ‘God changed his mind’.

Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 15 as he meets with the Syrophoenician woman who wants him to do a healing for a family member.  At first he sort of ‘dismisses’ her, Matthew says because she was ‘foreign’.  Yet this brave woman keeps Jesus in dialogue and eventually he’s convinced of her sincerity, changes his mind and performs a miracle.

I guess like many others I was brought up with that rather fixed idea that God is ‘unchangeable’.  Well, I suppose that’s true in a way – in the sense that his character of love and justice is always faithful.  Yet ‘love’ – and the Bible tells us that ‘God is love’ – ‘love’ is always open, always generous, always willing to be convinced – I think true ‘love’ is open to change.

It’s not loving in the least to have a prejudiced idea of someone and make that the last word.  Such attitudes break families and cause wars.

True love listens and constantly returns, always hoping for the best.  True love is epitomised by the Father of The Prodigal longing every day for the return of his son and then running with open arms to meet him.

Personally I’m inspired that God changed his mind about Nineveh and that Jesus lingered long enough with the Syrophoenician woman to do an about face and heal her daughter.

I hope I am ‘loving’ enough to be that open, generous, and warm-hearted in my life.  Seems to me that at times ‘changing you mind’ is actually a ‘Godly’ thing to do!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Cross Shaped Love

COTHA Clergy: St Michael's: 22nd January 2017
It was really good to worship with friends from Churches Together on The Hill (COTHA) last Sunday at St Michael’s.  Opposite is a picture of all us ministers who took part!

I was asked to preach and one of the lectionary readings was from 1 Corinthians 1 as Paul addresses the ‘divisions’ within the church at Corinth.  Here’s part of what I said – well, I believe in ‘re-cycling’!!


As Paul writes to the Corinthians in our epistle reading today he also urges them to hang on to their dreams and visions.  Yet he writes with a deep concern that they are looking for the wrong sort of light in their church life together.

I’m told that when the Keswick Convention descends upon that Lake District town, as it has done for over a hundred years as a sort of forerunner to Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor, it has a banner above its main tent with an aspirational text: All one in Christ Jesus.

Now that isn’t a banner you could ever have hoisted in Corinth.

This congregation may be seeking for the light but they are not all looking in the same place.  Factions had developed with some saying they belonged to Apollos, some to Cephas, others to Paul and, ironically, listed last of all, some to Christ!

It all sounds a little too uncomfortable to read this during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as maybe a modern version would say:  I hear divisions have broken out amongst you, some say they are Methodists, others Anglicans whilst others who can’t seem to make up their minds, namely Baptists and URC’s, you muddy the waters even more by calling yourselves ‘Free’!!

Paul is saddened by these divisions and he seems frustrated by that very human activity of ours to make the leaders we like into ‘cult’ like figures bordering on idolatry as we give them an almost God like status.

So, instead of clinging to the cult of so called ‘spiritual’ celebrity, what does Paul suggest should have been the light to have guided the Corinthians and us?  At the end of today’s reading he says it is ‘the message of the cross’. 

Instead of boasting about the eloquence of Apollos or the careful logic of Cephas or even the baptismal successes of Paul – their focus and their unity should be located in what they believe about the cross.

As Jesus died upon it didn’t he show us and teach us something about the value of brokenness, failure, vulnerability and sacrifice.  Doesn’t he show and teach us a new way of living which isn’t about power, instead it’s about service.

Paul says it’s this defiant symbol of the cross that we Christians should gather around – not the cult of celebrity leadership.  It’s the cross that defines us because it’s that cross shaped love and grace that brings light into the darkness.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Dumbing Down

I think I first heard the phrase ‘Dumbing Down’ in the early 90’s when it was often used to describe the way TV was heading.  With our attention spans apparently getting shorter television producers were beginning to make programmes that demanded less of us!

Since then it seems to have been a process that is unstoppable. 

My generation thinks the exams we took were harder than those taken by my sons – the exam boards have ‘dumbed down’ the syllabus!  From news bulletins to sermons we are told people can only absorb so much information so make it snappy and short!

Well that’s OK until, because we are so used to a ‘dumbed down’ framework, we all start seeing life as inevitably simple and straightforward – which of course it isn’t.

Such a scenario exists when politicians bring simplistic or wildly unrealistic solutions to a campaign just to capture the ‘popular’ vote rather than be honest and upfront in acknowledging that most of the world’s problems are highly complex with no one easy solution.

It happens too in churches when preachers and members make out there is only one ‘real’ way to pray, worship or be Christian instead of honestly struggling with the fact that the bible contains genuinely difficult parts and all our traditions are flawed by power struggles.

When we ‘dumb down’ difficult issues we start lying to ourselves.

I was so impressed the other day to read a line from a piece by Richard Rohr that went: Remember, how you get there determines where you finally arrive!

All leaders, including politicians and pastors, need to journey honestly with the people they are leading.  Our task isn’t to give simplistic answers which then generates a false hope, but to struggle with the issues we are all facing and work hard to sift through the siren voices on all sides and bring a measured provisional response that is still open to the discovery and revelation of yet more truth in coming days.  Such leadership recognises the value of the journey, which may be a long one, rather than constantly being fixated on the arrival, which may be premature if achieved by a ‘dumbed down’ fast fix route.

Of course it must be obvious to you now that I’m writing these words with half an eye on what is happening in Washington tomorrow as a most unlikely man is inaugurated as America’s 45th President. 

All our leaders need ours prayers and all of us, I believe, need to take on board the words of my favourite Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: Remember, how you get there determines where you finally arrive.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The door to happiness...

Sara and Duncan - and the MBE cake she made for him - and us!
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, has some brilliant one liners including this one: The door to happiness opens outwards…

In other words our lives are both enhanced and expanded as we think of others.  Or as Jesus put it: Love God and Love Neighbour.

These words seem so appropriate as I reflect on the service we held at Amersham Free Church last Sunday morning, during which we presented the founder of Street Kids Direct, Duncan Dyason (who was awarded the MBE in the recent New Year’s Honours List) with a cheque from our church community for £7,500.  When the final amounts of last year’s fund raising are gathered in that will rise to a wonderful £9,000 – well, I think it’s wonderful because we set out to raise £5,000 and ended up raising almost double.

These dry statistics represent a great deal of love, effort and prayerful concern from the folks at AFC as they have taken Street Kids Direct and all the work they do in Central America to their hearts.  We have, in Kierkegarrd’s words, tried to open the door outwards.  I am often very proud of my church (that isn’t a sin, is it?) and Sunday morning was just such an occasion.

I hope, as a community of faith, we continue to look outwards and as we do I’m sure we’ll go on being inspired by the way God is at work in our world as we jump in and join him!


Thursday, 5 January 2017

Removing our crowns...

Our Three Kings at the Nativity Play in AFC last month
Tomorrow, on January 6th, The Church celebrates Epiphany – the visit of The Magi to the baby Jesus.

At AFC last month, as our All Age Nativity came to an end Three Kings walked down the aisle in stately procession.  One by one they knelt before the Crib and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Yet this year, as has become an AFC tradition, they once again did something else.  As they knelt before Jesus they removed their crowns before presenting their gifts.  A profound moment.

What message, I wonder, was intended behind such beautiful symbolism?

Perhaps it was this. 

If Jesus is to us the epitome of love, the life and love of God as seen in the life and love of a human being – well as these kings kneel before LOVE they come not clothed in their earthly accolades but in an honest humility devoid of pomp or an inflated ego.

Love is a great unifier.  Love breaks down barriers.  Love reminds us of our shared humanity.  Love crosses boundaries and opens up shared partnerships.

Before LOVE we are all the same.  We are all blessed the same way when our lives are touched by the kiss of its presence.

When the Queen and Prince Philip were married in the splendour of Westminster Abbey 70 years ago this November, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, reminded them that despite the pomp and pageantry of this occasion the Marriage Service that day in the Abbey, the words used and the vows made, was essentially and deliberately the same as those used by any couple getting married at their local Parish Church.

Standing before LOVE none of us came as kings or chief executives!  As we kneel before God our accolades never guarantee us greater access, and our failings never close the door to God’s loving generosity and transforming grace.

This Epiphany then, I’ll remember the Kings in our Nativity Play – who not only presented their gifts but also, as they knelt, removed their crowns.


Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a...